In the play, Macbeth is ultimately responsible for the decisions and actions that lead to his downfall. However, as opposed to this argument, we understand that Macbeth is not totally to blame because his destruction was in some ways caused by his weakness to be easily influenced by others. The misleading prophecies of the Witches and the persuasiveness of Lady Macbeth clouded Macbeth’s own judgement. Duncan’s murder is also a factor to consider as it became a point where Macbeth believed that there was no turning back because he had already destroyed the natural order in Scotland. The context of the play is extremely crucial because as Macbeth was written at a time when James the Sixth of Scotland claimed the throne of England, the play shows in many examples that James was Shakespeare’s focus.
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In Act 1 Scene 3, for the first time, the world of witches and the world of men have been brought together. One of the witches describes how she will “give thee a wind” in order to punish a sailor because his wife would not give her some of the chestnuts she was eating. This shows how spiteful the witches are and how they can do a lot of harm. However, it is made clear that the sailor’s “bark cannot be lost” (bark representing the sailor’s ship) indicating that there are limitations to the witches’ powers because the witch isn’t powerful enough to sink the ship. The ship is in fact a metaphor, representing the State of Scotland, which is going to suffer a “storm” under Macbeth’s reign. Therefore, the witches can only create the climate for evil; Macbeth alone would cause the chaos in Scotland by destroying order.
Macbeth enters to the sound of a beating drum: “a drum, a drum, Macbeth doth come”. This dramatic device is not placed once but twice, indicating to the audience Macbeth’s growing status and importance. The fact that the “drum” sound coincided with Macbeth’s arrival indicates that the witches have already predicted Macbeth’s rise to power. Macbeth says that he has never seen “so foul and fair a day”, meaning that the day is foul due to the witches raising a storm but fair due to his victory on the battlefield. His words are paradoxical and echo those spoken earlier by the witches, “Fair is foul, and foul is fair”. These similar sentences contain interconnected ideas and therefore demonstrate the inseparability of Macbeth and the forces of darkness. Macbeth’s first words could be interpreted in a way such that things that seem fair such as becoming king are also foul because it could lead to his own downfall. Therefore, it seems as if Macbeth is responsible for his own downfall because Shakespeare depicts him to be associated with evil forces.
The witches’ prophecies have a powerful effect on Macbeth. Banquo notices this and asks him “why do you start and seem to fear/ Things that do sound so fair”. Banquo cannot see why Macbeth, a great warrior should be afraid when he is promised only good things. What the witches say seems to strike a thought in Macbeth’s mind, especially the prediction that he will become king. Macbeth’s deep though-provoked mind is perhaps the first sign of his ambitious nature and actually the first indicator of the theme itself because it is unusual for someone to fear something that “sounds so fair”. Alternatively, perhaps Macbeth’s “fear” is of uncertainty rather than “an emotional response to a perceived threat” (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fear). From this interpretation, Macbeth is unsure about the choices he will have to make in order to fulfil his ambition and the prophecy. Therefore, we would assume that his ambition has made him realise that in order for these “fair” prophecies to become reality, he would need to commit terrible, unspeakable acts along the way to achieve his new ambition. This interpretation is supported in the text because when the witches vanish, Macbeth wonders if they have disappeared “into the air”- what he thought was solid has melted away. This could be interpreted in way such that under the evil influence of the witches, things around Macbeth that he thinks are solid, like his loyalty to the King will also melt away. Macbeth chooses to accept the witches’ words and is clearly lost in thought unlike Banquo who is suspicious of them and seems unafraid.
In his asides, Macbeth reveals that all he has to achieve is to become king after saying that the “greatest is behind”. The word “behind” is significant because it seems to suggest the sneaky and deceitful way in which Macbeth seizes the crown. Macbeth darkly and suspiciously questions Banquo’s ambitions: “Do you not hope your children shall be kings” indicating that he seems worried about the prediction that Banquo’s children will be kings, as though this is a threat to his future. The witches’ prophecy that Banquo will found a line of kings is a clear reference to James’ family’s claim to have descended from the historical Banquo. This reflects Shakespeare’s close relationship with King James. Clearly, Macbeth’s ambitious nature is overtaking his decisive personality as he wants to hear more of the witches’ “strange intelligence”. Thus, the witches’ words have caused him to feel concerned and curious about his future. Even though Act 1 Scene 3 was the first meeting of the witches and Macbeth, the witches can be seen as accountable for Macbeth’s destruction because the witches’ words strike a chord in his mind, tapping into his ambition and as a result, he starts to become more selfish and deceitful as he sees Banquo and the king as obstacles.
However, despite the witches’ influence on Macbeth, Banquo does warn Macbeth to look closer at the witches’ predictions before he acts on them: Banquo refers to the witches as “instruments of darkness” who “tell us truths” which may come true but only for the purpose of bringing about our downfall. Banquo’s words “Can the devil speak true?” echo the theme of appearance and reality because he instinctively knows that the witches are twisting the truth in order to lure Macbeth away from his conscience. By making a reference to the “devil”, Banquo clearly believes that the witches are evil. However, Macbeth blinded by what is and isn’t reality doesn’t acknowledge Banquo’s warning. Banquo is portrayed here by Shakespeare as being the wise and in some respects, the omniscient character because he is able to see beyond the witches’ trickery and deceit. As King James was a descendent from the historical Banquo, since Banquo does not fall into evil, Shakespeare is in fact complimenting King James. Banquo’s words are slightly ironic because Macbeth chooses to follow through the witches’ prophecies instead of dismissing them and eventually as Banquo said, is betrayed “in deepest consequence”.
Although the witches predict that Macbeth will be king, they never speak of murdering Duncan; it is Macbeth who mentions murder in his aside: “My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical”. Even though Macbeth thinks the idea of murder is “fantastical”, meaning that it only exists in his imagination, it is him who links the ideas of kingship and murder. Thus, the witches’ words are only tempting Macbeth, it is he who further develops ideas relating to the prophecies. This issue of kingship and loyalty were of profound importance to James who early in life had survived the Gunpowder Plot assassination. Shakespeare has clearly related the play to the events of the Gunpowder Plot through the theme of bad versus good kingship where James represents Duncan, the rightful and well-respected king who maintains peace and order which collapses due to the arrogance of an ambitious Thane, Macbeth. There is a link between the Englishmen who plotted to blow up the houses of Parliament and assassinate James, and Macbeth’s assassination of King Duncan because both murder attempts (one of which was successful) begin from a simple thought despite how “fantastical” they may seem at first. Thus, Macbeth is seen as being responsible for his own downfall because he has associated the witches’ prophecy with murder.
Lady Macbeth contributes towards Macbeth’s downfall as she is seen to be very persuasive, particularly in encouraging Macbeth to kill the King. She is convinced that murder is the only way to make the witches’ prediction come true, but she also believes that he is “too full o’ the milk of human kindness”. Lady Macbeth uses the metaphor of “milk” (being a pure drink) to show that Macbeth is too kind and respectful to “catch the nearest way” to becoming king. Therefore, although Macbeth is a great warrior, he lacks ruthlessness. Thus, Macbeth does not lack ambition but he is squeamish about the methods to be used to achieve his ambition of becoming king. When in Act 1 Scene 7, Macbeth decides to cancel the plan of murdering king Duncan, Lady Macbeth uses several techniques to in order to convince him to carry out the plan. She asks him, “was the hope drunk wherein you dressed yourself?” She uses the metaphor of alcohol to imply that Macbeth’s courage is the result of intoxication and not real determination. Macbeth is a strong, brutal warrior, so by insulting him, she is offending his manliness. Lady Macbeth accuses Macbeth of being too timid and “afeard” to do something to make his ambition come true. She also accuses Macbeth of being “green and pale”. Green in this context has connotations of ‘coldness’ and ‘sickness’, making Macbeth seem very small and weak. Thus, Macbeth is accused of being a coward. Macbeth’s decision earlier not to kill King Duncan crumbles under the scornful attack of his wife. However, while some critics suggest that Lady Macbeth is just simply a physical representation of the theme of deception, she also has a wider religious meaning. In the bible, it was Eve who persuaded Adam to eat from the Tree of knowledge of good and evil after being tempted by the devil in the form of a serpent. This suggests that women are in fact responsible for the fall of man. Therefore, in the context of the play, perhaps it is Lady Macbeth who causes the downfall of Macbeth because through her persuasiveness, she convinces Macbeth to commit murder.
Lady Macbeth calls upon evil spirits in order to fulfil Macbeth’s ambition and her desire to be Queen: “fill me from the crown to the toe topfull of direst cruelty”. She is addressing the evil spirits to take her natural womanliness and to fill her instead with bitterness, wickedness and cruelty. The fact that Lady Macbeth is ordering the spirits and that she has to ask to be made evil, indicates that she is desperate to support Macbeth but also suggests that she is not as strong as she wants to be. The use of the words “fill” and “direst” is effective as it shows that she wants to be completely evil as well as a being the very worst (“direst” being the superlative form of the adjective ‘dire’). Unlike Macbeth, Lady Macbeth does not want any natural feelings of regret or conscience to get in the way of what she intends. To an Elizabethan audience, the character of Lady Macbeth would have been quite shocking and perhaps even distressing because she completely contrasts the view of women during the 16th century. Tudor women took great pride in being loving and caring mother. Women were inferior to men, regarded as “the weaker sex” and it was believed that women needed someone to look after them. However, Lady Macbeth is largely independent; she is making her own decisions as well as those of her husband, Macbeth. Thus, Lady Macbeth is seen to be the evil force driving Macbeth to do all the horrific deeds he does. However, a modern audience would view Lady Macbeth differently because attitudes to women have changed considerably. Therefore, the character of Lady Macbeth, although evil, would not be as shocking to a modern audience.
Duncan’s murder could be seen as the initial step to Macbeth’s downfall because Macbeth knows that there is no turning back as he has already destroyed the natural order in Scotland. It is suggested that nature has turned upside down after King Duncan’s murder as the horses “broke their stalls” and “ate each other”. The balance between good and evil has been tipped in favour of evil due to Macbeth’s crime of murdering a divinely appointed King. When Macbeth is crowned King, he knows that there is no going back: “We are yet but young in deed”. This shows that Macbeth is willing to maintain his high position because he has already changed fate by choosing to murder Duncan.
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Duncan’s murder is a clear reference to the theme of succession and order because in Shakespearean time, it was believed that the king was appointed by God and that to oppose the King and his decisions was against God’s will. There was also the belief that murdering a divinely appointed king or queen would produce ‘unnatural’ or ‘horrific’ results. This is seen in Macbeth because the unnatural killing of Duncan was followed by “A falcon” killed “by a mousing owl”. The two birds contrast each other because a “falcon” is normally associated with royalty whereas an “owl” can be considered inferior since they only come out at night. Furthermore, while the “falcon” represents Duncan, the “owl” could represent Macbeth because due to the association of “owls” with darkness, mystery and perhaps loneliness, on a metaphorical level, the quote confirms the sneaky and deceitful way in which Macbeth murdered Duncan in his bed. Thus, Macbeth can be seen responsible for his own destruction because he murdered a divinely appointed king; the fact that the murder was accompanied by ‘unnatural’ things emphasises the true horror behind Macbeth’s sinister actions.
In Act 4, the witches’ contribute to Macbeth’s downfall as they deceive him through twisted words. The first apparition warns Macbeth to “beware Macduff” however Macbeth remains confident because the second apparition informs him that “none of woman born shall harm Macbeth”. From this Macbeth believes he is invincible because he assumes that all people are born from a woman. The third apparition tells Macbeth that he “shall never vanquish’d until Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane Hill Shall come against him”. As a result, Macbeth becomes extremely overconfident however due to his readiness to know his future, he does not realise that the Witches are in fact leading Macbeth into a false sense of security. The witches are showing him visions which they know he will misinterpret because they have double meanings. Macduff, unknown to Macbeth, was “from his mother’s womb untimely ripped” indicating that he was born by a Caesarean section and therefore, he was not of woman born. The third apparition actually represents Malcolm, who orders his army to conceal its size by hiding behind branches from Birnam Wood. Therefore, it would seem as if the forest is moving up to Dunsinane Hill. The witches play a big part in Macbeth’s downfall as they clearly confuse him and as Macbeth can be easily influenced, the witches show Macbeth future visions that he misinterprets.
However after Duncan’s death, Macbeth could be seen as responsible for his own downfall because he becomes more independent and relies less on Lady Macbeth as he no longer needs reinsurance for the evil deeds that he carries out. In Act 3 Scene 2, Macbeth tells Lady Macbeth to “be innocent of the knowledge”. He makes this statement in reference to the murders of Banquo and Fleance. The significance of the statement is that Macbeth is planning to carry out the deed on his own, without the guidance and support from his wife. Macbeth’s tyranny is shown in this scene because he is confident that his wife will agree with the murders after they are accomplished and “applaud the deed”. Macbeth has detached himself from his reliance on his wife and now is carrying out murder on his own accord.
Macbeth is calls for the murder of his trusted friends and allies in order to remain King. Although earlier in the play Macbeth is depicted as a “butcher” in battle, his ambitious nature goes to the extent that he becomes a “bloody tyrant”. In Act 4 when Macbeth believes he is invincible, he still decides to kill Macduff: “but yet I’ll make assurance double sure and take a bond of fate: thou shalt not live”. Macbeth’s own fear and rage of losing his throne expresses itself in the pointless plan to massacre Macduff’s family. The quote gives us an indication of Macbeth’s new behaviour: he has become overconfident because he feels that by basing all of his actions upon the witches’ prophecies, he is making himself invincible. He can no longer differentiate between what is reality and what is a hallucination (i.e. appears to be real). Macbeth is taking the witches’ words literally; he is not interpreting the prophecies as riddles. Macbeth doesn’t care who or how many people he kills, but as long as he is able to eliminate threats according to the witches’ prophecies. Thus, Macbeth is very much a ruthless dictator who is corrupt and knows no moral quandary. He is decisive although he relies upon the witches to gain confidence.
Macbeth’s downfall is in some ways caused by his guilty conscience as throughout the play, he sees many visions and has hallucinations. These dramatic features present in the play are the main reason why scholars regard Macbeth as “the first psychological exploration of effects of guilt”. In Act 2 Scene 1, Macbeth says: “Is this a dagger I see before me”. He is hallucinating and sees a bloody dagger in the air, which is his instrument to murder the King. This dramatic device indicates that Macbeth is full of guilt. His mind is full of dark thoughts and he is tormented by images of blood and fear of the unknown. Interestingly, Shakespeare’s perception of the supernatural in the play stays truthful to the general belief at the time. James the First believed in witchcraft, publishing a book on witchcraft called “Daemononlogie” in 1597. To be associated with witches was considered a criminal offense and many women were put on trial as a result. Thus, although we may solely believe that the supernatural are only a psychological force influencing and antagonising Macbeth throughout the play, in fact many people during James’s reign took witchcraft and the supernatural quite literally. Therefore, Macbeth’s association with supernatural would have been even more horrific and unpleasant to the average person. Furthermore, in Act 3 Scene 4 Macbeth hallucinates when he claims that the “table’s full” as he sees Banquo’s ghost sitting in a chair at the banquet. There is dramatic irony since only Macbeth can see Banquo’s ghost whereas Lady Macbeth and the nobles cannot. Through stage directions, it is stated that Banquo’s ghost sits in “Macbeth’s place” and “smiles”. This is signifying that Banquo will take his revenge because although Macbeth might be King of Scotland now, it is Banquo’s decedents who will be kings. (This is possible since Fleance survives) This theme of revenge is supported by Macbeth’s response to the ghost: “Blood will have blood”. Thus, Banquo’s ghost is a harsh reminder of Macbeth’s wickedness and is an externalised form of Macbeth’s fear of discovery and guilt. Shakespeare has portrayed Banquo as the ‘angel-like’ figure only to please King James because in reality, the historic Banquo was actually an accomplice in the murder of Duncan. Banquo’s ghost pricks Macbeth’s conscience by reminding him that he murdered his former friend. Macbeth tries to suppress his guilt but this only leads to psychological illness. Therefore, Macbeth claims that to be able to ignore his conscience, he needs to continue his violence and tyranny. At the end of the play, Macbeth has “almost forgot the taste of fears” meaning that he has lost the sense of fear. Macbeth feels he can no longer be frightened because he has seen so many supernatural things and horrors. It is also revealed that Macbeth’s guilt drives him mad: “his secret murders sticking on his hands”, suggesting that his senses are numbed because he commits a vast number of crimes. As the purpose of “Sticking” is to securely position one object onto another, in the context of the play, Macbeth’s soul is, for the rest of eternity, permanently stained with guilt. Thus, the supernatural elements in the play take their toll on Macbeth- there are consequences when meddling with the forces of right and good by embracing evil and darkness.
In conclusion, the witches, Lady Macbeth and Duncan’s murder all have a significant impact on Macbeth and contribute to his downfall however I also believe that the context of the play is very important because it influenced the way in which Shakespeare develops the characters and the events which occur in Macbeth. At first, Lady Macbeth has the greatest effect on Macbeth because she was the one who persuaded him to carry out his first murder however, I believe that if it wasn’t for the witches, Macbeth would never feel the need to “stab” the rightful king because in the play, Duncan is very grateful and is seen to reward Macbeth for his bravery when he makes him Thane of Cawdor. After Duncan’s death, Macbeth starts to isolate himself from his wife and becomes suspicious of his allies, particularly Banquo. The bloody dagger and Banquo’s ghost, though playing a small part, attack Macbeth’s conscience, confusing him and leading him to near insanity. The witches, who Macbeth depends on throughout the play, deceive him and lead him to a false sense of security. However, Macbeth was already doomed for destruction when he announced himself as king because a true king is one that can maintain the balance of order and not give in to dark forces. Also, no one encouraged Macbeth to murder Banquo and Macduff’s wife; it was Macbeth’s corrupt behaviour and his heavy reliance on the witches’ prophecies that lead him to take the lives of innocent beings.
However, it must not be forgotten that the play is a tragedy; Macbeth, an individual whose ambition, the driving force of his life is his greatest weakness causing him to fall from a successful position to inevitably death. Perhaps, it is nor right or wrong to blame destruction on Macbeth himself because as in all tragedies, the main protagonist has the capability to succeed but also the limitations to fall. To put responsibility on a single individual is to some extent unfair because all human beings have flaws; no matter how confident and bold they appear.
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